The ubiquitous use of “post-modernist” as an insult meant to describe some sort of uber-relativistic, solipsistic mental-masturbation has always bugged me. Post-modernism was a very important development that deconstructed the illusion of humans (or “scientists” or “men”, depending on the topic) as objective observers of reality. It posited humans as interpreters of reality, who constructed models, symbols, etc.to make a counter-intuitive reality comprehensive to brains that never had any “reason” to evolve the ability to do so. And yet, people sneer at post-modernism and constructivism (the idea that reality is constructed by people) as some sort of wooey, New Agey “everyone can have their own reality and their own facts” sort of BS.
Well, imagine my glee when, while reading an article in Skeptic about Stephen Hawking’s 2010 book The Grand Design, I come upon a discussion of Hawking’s “Other Controversial Theory”: Model-Dependent Realism.
The article in Skeptic explained MDR in the terms very similar to the ones the social sciences have been using for years (but with more neuro
logyscience*), and the more I read about it, the more it seems to be the very same thing. But this time, it comes from a source not so easily dismissed by nerd-snobbery: the world’s most famous physicist**. A relevant quote from the book:
[Model-dependent realism] is based on the idea that our brains interpret the input from our sensory organs by making a model of the world. When such a model is successful at explaining events, we tend to attribute to it, and to the elements and concepts that constitute it, the quality of reality or absolute truth. There is no picture- or theory-independent concept of reality. Instead we will adopt a view that we will call model-dependent realism: the idea that a physical theory or world picture is a model (generally of a mathematical nature) and a set of rules that connect the elements of the model to observations. This provides a framework with which to interpret modern science. According to model-dependent realism, it is pointless to ask whether a model is real, only whether it agrees with observation. If there are two models that both agree with observation … then one cannot say that one is more real than another. One can use whichever model is more convenient in the situation under consideration. It might be that to describe the universe, we have to employ different theories in different situations. Each theory may have its own version of reality, but according to model-dependent realism, that is acceptable so long as the theories agree in their predictions whenever they overlap, that is, whenever they can both be applied.
According to the idea of model-dependent realism …, our brains interpret the input from our sensory organs by making a model of the outside world. We form mental concepts of our home, trees, other people, the electricity that flows from wall sockets, atoms, molecules, and other universes. These mental concepts are the only reality we can know. There is no model-independent test of reality. It follows that a well-constructed model creates a reality of its own.
So: I’m going to have to read that book now, just to make sure I’m not entirely deluding myself about this (wouldn’t want to end up like those morons who think relativity and quantum physics “are what Eastern religions have been saying for millenia”), and if it turns out to be that MDR really is a physicy version of constructivism/post-modernism, next time someone sneers at those concepts because they’re primarily used in the social sciences (and, *gasp* the arts and humanities), I might have to link them to a discussion on MDR and/or suggest the book to them.
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*dum… dee… dum…
**Yes, I’m fully aware I’m making an appeal to authority. However, nerd-snobbery is an argumentum ad hominem, and I find that, in non-formal discussions, those two cancel each other out nicely. So, to get those who commit the ad hom against constructivism to get past their mistake, I present them with an authority their tribalist brains might be willing to take seriously. In terms of intellectually honest debate, this might be cheating a bit, but fuck it: if it gets the morons to pay attention to such important concepts, it might be worth it.